Think of Martin Scorsese, the arbiter of American cinema par excellence for half a century, and the chances are that you think of him careening into the dark corners of the masculine psyche with a mobile camera and a pop music soundtrack.
From his recent output, you may think of The Wolf of Wall Street, with Jordan Belfort’s pumped-up, drug-fuelled white-collar excess and bare breasts galore; or his last film, The Irishman, with its ensemble cast a literal and figurative murderers’ row of crinkly faced tough guys with nary an important woman in the bunch.
Given Scorsese’s propensity for examining violent and dangerous men, it’s not a career that seems particularly geared for feminist reading. Many have even seen his work as actively retrograde on gender; tacitly supporting the worldview and attitudes of the often-abusive, philandering or casually misogynistic men that he depicts.
But take a look at the self-assurance and cheerful complicity of Goodfellas mob wife Karen Hill (the unforgettable Lorraine Bracco) in the face of her husband’s disloyalty, or the sparky defiance of Gilded Age divorcée Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence, and a different, far more complex picture emerges.
Scorsese shows a continued interest in how women navigate around the wrath and power of men, and sometimes also find themselves enthralled by it. With any close examination of the films themselves, there’s genius and pragmatism to Scorsese’s depiction of tough broads and female survivors.
Perhaps his crowning achievement on this front is in his depiction of Hill, the ride-or-die mob wife with a smart mouth. Scorsese does something striking in the film: he gives her a voiceover, in which she explains, at length, the reasons she’s attracted to mob life and also, quite often, repulsed and frightened by it.
Rather than a mere accessory, she is a partner in crime, knowingly so. As the FBI agent tells her sternly late in the film: “Don’t play the babe-in-the-woods routine”.
In Casino, Sharon Stone is a whirling dervish of sexual heat and gold-digging hustle: although she ultimately is a devilish femme fatale who meets a rather cruel comeuppance, she is far from a throwaway character, with a tragic backstory and a real force of personality.
In his more female-focused films, like his 1974 road movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese collaborated on writing and performance with star Ellen Burstyn, who plays a bullied housewife with dreams of singing stardom. When she loses her husband abruptly and decides to hit the road with her son to chase a future, she finds both the difficulties of new romance and independence before her.
Scorsese’s tendency for depicting dysfunctional onscreen romances began as soon as his film-making career did: his debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door, in 1967, made a star of an unknown actor named Harvey Keitel. In the film, the knockabout downtown boy Keitel plays is entranced by a clever uptown girl who is smart, sexually liberated and, troublingly, non-Catholic.
In a film that focuses on the culture and gender clashes between the old-school and the new, it’s clear from the very beginning that Scorsese was painfully aware of the limitations of his upbringing and the masculine world around him.
He elaborates on this to a painful degree in his masterpiece Raging Bull, a boxing film that is really much more about the wounded psyche of its protagonist, Jake La Motta, and his curious rage around women and sexuality. He is portrayed as openly monstrous, at times, to his wife, Vicky (Cathy Moriarty): it’s a film that has much to say on the consequences of untrammelled male chauvinism.
And in The Age of Innocence, Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s period novel of unrequited love and class-based cruelty, the joke is on the men: it is the women of this world who have the power and who know how to navigate the intricate social rituals to their benefit.
Although it is an achingly romantic story, it is also one where male arrogance is another obstacle in an already Byzantine world – so not too dissimilar from Marty’s other cynical depictions of love.
But there’s a real-life woman who has a lot to teach you about Scorsese’s film career and if you look carefully, you can spot her across many of his works: Catherine Scorsese, his mother.
The tiny Italian mamma is a good sport about appearing in cameos across her son’s movies. In a classic Goodfellas scene where Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta, appear in the middle of the night and eat dinner at her home, there’s a beautiful ad-libbed moment. For a split second, after Pesci makes a dirty joke he’s clearly come up with off the top of his head, Catherine – the non-professional – nearly glances to camera as she laughs.
Real women in Scorsese’s working life are not hard to come by: his key creative team is often populated by them, from costume designer Sandy Powell to producers like Barbara De Fina. But no collaboration has been more frequent than with his editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Schoonmaker, who has edited every one of his films since 1980, is the most nominated editor in Oscars history, and both figures have acknowledged their creative reliance on one another. Asked why a nice lady should want to work on such violent films, Schoonmaker once remarked: “They aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.”
Even still, lazy critiques about misogyny cropped up in 2019 on the release of Scorsese’s Netflix epic The Irishman. Complaints flew about how few lines of dialogue the protagonist’s daughter, played by Anna Paquin, actually had. This mildly pedantic viewpoint is made hollow by the visual beats of the film itself: Paquin’s character is the moral backbone of the entire film, and her quiet, watchful gaze is haunting throughout. She doesn’t need to say anything because her father knows that she knows he’s a killer: what else is there to say?
That storm in a teacup, though, is in a way right at the crux of this long-running misunderstanding: Scorsese’s films are often about male egotism and the messes they make, which women are left to clean up.
Scorsese takes a scalpel to gender in many of his films and viewers may not always love what they see. But his vivid, plucky women, played by fine actors from Pfeiffer to Stone and more, deserve a second look.
Scorsese classics are back on the big screen across the UK. Raging Bull returns from 14 April in a new 4K restoration and The Age of Innocence is in cinemas now